Rupert Brooke 3 August 1887 – 23 April 1915
Rupert Brooke was born in Rugby and attended Rugby School, the English Public School famous as the home of rugby football, where his father was a Housemaster. Given that the school was also his family home, Rugby played a large part in his formative years. The school has a tradition of creating poets – forerunners of Brooke in the nineteenth century include Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough and Lewis Carroll.
Brooke went on to study first Classics and then English Literature at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was also awarded a Fellowship in recognition of his work on John Webster. Brooke’s circle in Cambridge included Lytton and James Strachey, Geoffrey and Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. He was a leading figure of a group of friends dubbed the Neo-Pagans for their love of nature, camping, rambling and naturism. He became interested in socialism and was President of the University Fabian Society.
Brooke was strikingly good looking – ‘the handsomest young man in England’, according to Yeats. He had a difficult relationship with a dominant mother and a complex personality, which led to a number of troubled sexual and emotional relationships with both men and women. He suffered severe mental health problems during 1912, following which he travelled extensively in North America and the Pacific. He settled for a time in Tahiti, where he wrote a number of striking poems and is believed to have fathered a child by his Tahitian lover, ‘Mamua’.
Brooke was a protégé of Eddie Marsh, Private Secretary to Winston Churchill and a leading figure in literary and cultural circles. Brooke and Marsh together conceived the idea of the influential Georgian Poetry anthologies, in which some of the war poems of Graves, Sassoon and Nichols first appeared.
Brooke volunteered for active service at the outbreak of war in August 1914 and, with the help of Marsh and Churchill, gained a commission in the Royal Naval Division. He was part of the British Expeditionary Force which attempted to check the German advance on Antwerp at the start of hostilities. After this first shocking experience of war he wrote five sonnets which at the time were lauded for their eloquent patriotism and which in later years were derided for their hollow sentimentalism.
Brooke died in 1915, before seeing further action. En route to Gallipoli a mosquito bite on his lip became infected and he died of blood poisoning. He died on St George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday, and was buried in a remarkable ceremony on the Greek island of Skyros. He immediately became part of a romantic myth which lit the imagination of a country still excited by the concept of youthful idealism and sacrifice. Churchill led the way in an emotional tribute in The Times:
“He expected to die; he was willing to die for the dear England whose beauty and majesty he knew… The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely into this, the hardest, the cruellest and the least rewarded of all the wars that men have fought.”
Brooke is at the same time one of the most mythologised and one of the most demonised of modern poets. He is, however, a more complex and intelligent figure than is often supposed. His five sonnets of 1914, which are not representative of his other work, captured the mood of a particular moment and no doubt he would have written differently had he survived to see how the war progressed and attitudes changed. As the imagery of ‘The Soldier’ suggests, Brooke’s passionate patriotism was driven more by a love of the English countryside than ‘plutocratic, dirty’ English society, about which he was deeply ambivalent.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
DAY THAT I HAVE LOVED
Tenderly, day that I have loved, I close your eyes,
And smooth your quiet brow, and fold your thin dead hands.
The grey veils of the half-light deepen; colour dies.
I bear you, a light burden, to the shrouded sands,
Where lies your waiting boat, by wreaths of the sea's making
Mist-garlanded, with all grey weeds of the water crowned.
There you'll be laid, past fear of sleep or hope of waking;
And over the unmoving sea, without a sound,
Faint hands will row you outward, out beyond our sight,
Us with stretched arms and empty eyes on the far-gleaming
And marble sand. . . .
Beyond the shifting cold twilight,
Further than laughter goes, or tears, further than dreaming,
There'll be no port, no dawn-lit islands! But the drear
Waste darkening, and, at length, flame ultimate on the deep.
Oh, the last fire — and you, unkissed, unfriended there!
Oh, the lone way's red ending, and we not there to weep!
(We found you pale and quiet, and strangely crowned with flowers,
Lovely and secret as a child. You came with us,
Came happily, hand in hand with the young dancing hours,
High on the downs at dawn!) Void now and tenebrous,
The grey sands curve before me. . . .
From the inland meadows,
Fragrant of June and clover, floats the dark, and fills
The hollow sea's dead face with little creeping shadows,
And the white silence brims the hollow of the hills.
Close in the nest is folded every weary wing,
Hushed all the joyful voices; and we, who held you dear,
Eastward we turn and homeward, alone, remembering . . .
SLEEPING OUT: FULL MOON
They sleep within. . . .
I cower to the earth, I waking, I only.
High and cold thou dreamest, O queen, high-dreaming and lonely.
We have slept too long, who can hardly win
The white one flame, and the night-long crying;
The viewless passers; the world's low sighing
With desire, with yearning,
To the fire unburning,
To the heatless fire, to the flameless ecstasy! . . .
Helpless I lie.
And around me the feet of thy watchers tread.
There is a rumour and a radiance of wings above my head,
An intolerable radiance of wings. . . .
All the earth grows fire,
White lips of desire
Brushing cool on the forehead, croon slumbrous things.
Earth fades; and the air is thrilled with ways,
Dewy paths full of comfort. And radiant bands,
The gracious presence of friendly hands,
Help the blind one, the glad one, who stumbles and strays,
Stretching wavering hands, up, up, through the praise
Of a myriad silver trumpets, through cries,
To all glory, to all gladness, to the infinite height,
To the gracious, the unmoving, the mother eyes,
And the laughter, and the lips, of light.
Creeps in half wanton, half asleep,
One with a fat wide hairless face.
He likes love-music that is cheap;
Likes women in a crowded place;
And wants to hear the noise they're making.
His heavy eyelids droop half-over,
Great pouches swing beneath his eyes.
He listens, thinks himself the lover,
Heaves from his stomach wheezy sighs;
He likes to feel his heart's a-breaking.
The music swells. His gross legs quiver.
His little lips are bright with slime.
The music swells. The women shiver.
And all the while, in perfect time,
His pendulous stomach hangs a-shaking.
THE VISION OF THE ARCHANGELS
Slowly up silent peaks, the white edge of the world,
Trod four archangels, clear against the unheeding sky,
Bearing, with quiet even steps, and great wings furled,
A little dingy coffin; where a child must lie,
It was so tiny. (Yet, you had fancied, God could never
Have bidden a child turn from the spring and the sunlight,
And shut him in that lonely shell, to drop for ever
Into the emptiness and silence, into the night. . . .)
They then from the sheer summit cast, and watched it fall,
Through unknown glooms, that frail black coffin — and therein
God's little pitiful Body lying, worn and thin,
And curled up like some crumpled, lonely flower-petal —
Till it was no more visible; then turned again
With sorrowful quiet faces downward to the plain.
Swiftly out from the friendly lilt of the band,
The crowd's good laughter, the loved eyes of men,
I am drawn nightward; I must turn again
Where, down beyond the low untrodden strand,
There curves and glimmers outward to the unknown
The old unquiet ocean. All the shade
Is rife with magic and movement. I stray alone
Here on the edge of silence, half afraid,
Waiting a sign. In the deep heart of me
The sullen waters swell towards the moon,
And all my tides set seaward.
Leaps a gay fragment of some mocking tune,
That tinkles and laughs and fades along the sand,
And dies between the seawall and the sea.
Because God put His adamantine fate
Between my sullen heart and its desire,
I swore that I would burst the Iron Gate,
Rise up, and curse Him on His throne of fire.
Earth shuddered at my crown of blasphemy,
But Love was as a flame about my feet;
Proud up the Golden Stair I strode; and beat
Thrice on the Gate, and entered with a cry —
All the great courts were quiet in the sun,
And full of vacant echoes: moss had grown
Over the glassy pavement, and begun
To creep within the dusty council-halls.
An idle wind blew round an empty throne
And stirred the heavy curtains on the walls.
Out of the nothingness of sleep,
The slow dreams of Eternity,
There was a thunder on the deep:
I came, because you called to me.
I broke the Night's primeval bars,
I dared the old abysmal curse,
And flashed through ranks of frightened stars
Suddenly on the universe!
The eternal silences were broken;
Hell became Heaven as I passed. —
What shall I give you as a token,
A sign that we have met, at last?
I'll break and forge the stars anew,
Shatter the heavens with a song;
Immortal in my love for you,
Because I love you, very strong.
Your mouth shall mock the old and wise,
Your laugh shall fill the world with flame,
I'll write upon the shrinking skies
The scarlet splendour of your name,
Till Heaven cracks, and Hell thereunder
Dies in her ultimate mad fire,
And darkness falls, with scornful thunder,
On dreams of men and men's desire.
Then only in the empty spaces,
Death, walking very silently,
Shall fear the glory of our faces
Through all the dark infinity.
So, clothed about with perfect love,
The eternal end shall find us one,
Alone above the Night, above
The dust of the dead gods, alone.
Sonnet: "OH! DEATH WILL FIND ME, LONG BEFORE I TIRE
Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,
One day, I think, I'll feel a cool wind blowing,
See a slow light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the Dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died,
And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass, light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam
Most individual and bewildering ghost !
And turn, and toss your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.
Sonnet: "I AID I SPLENDIDLY LOVED YOU; IT'S NOT TRUE
I said I splendidly loved you; it's not true.
Such long swift tides stir not a land-locked sea.
On gods or fools the high risk falls — on you
The clean clear bitter-sweet that's not for me.
Love soars from earth to ecstasies unwist.
Love is flung Lucifer-like from Heaven to Hell.
But there are wanderers in the middle mist,
Who cry for shadows, clutch, and cannot tell
Whether they love at all, or, loving, whom:
An old song's lady, a fool in fancy dress,
Or phantoms, or their own face on the gloom;
For love of Love, or from heart's loneliness.
Pleasure's not theirs, nor pain. They doubt, and sigh,
And do not love at all. Of these am I.
I think if you had loved me when I wanted;
If I'd looked up one day, and seen your eyes,
And found my wild sick blasphemous prayer granted,
And your brown face, that's full of pity and wise,
Flushed suddenly; the white godhead in new fear
Intolerably so struggling, and so shamed;
Most holy and far, if you'd come all too near,
If earth had seen Earth's lordliest wild limbs tamed,
Shaken, and trapped, and shivering, for MY touch
Myself should I have slain? or that foul you?
But this the strange gods, who had given so much,
To have seen and known you, this they might not do.
One last shame's spared me, one black word's unspoken;
And I'm alone; and you have not awoken.
When love has changed to kindliness
Oh, love, our hungry lips, that press
So tight that Time's an old god's dream
Nodding in heaven, and whisper stuff
Seven million years were not enough
To think on after, make it seem
Less than the breath of children playing,
A blasphemy scarce worth the saying,
A sorry jest, "When love has grown
To kindliness — to kindliness!" . . .
And yet — the best that either's known
Will change, and wither, and be less,
At last, than comfort, or its own
Remembrance. And when some caress
Tendered in habit (once a flame
All heaven sang out to) wakes the shame
Unworded, in the steady eyes
We'll have, — THAT day, what shall we do?
Being so noble, kill the two
Who've reached their second-best? Being wise,
Break cleanly off, and get away.
Follow down other windier skies
New lures, alone? Or shall we stay,
Since this is all we've known, content
In the lean twilight of such day,
And not remember, not lament?
That time when all is over, and
Hand never flinches, brushing hand;
And blood lies quiet, for all you're near;
And it's but spoken words we hear,
Where trumpets sang; when the mere skies
Are stranger and nobler than your eyes;
And flesh is flesh, was flame before;
And infinite hungers leap no more
In the chance swaying of your dress;
And love has changed to kindliness.
THE LIFE BEYOND
He wakes, who never thought to wake again,
Who held the end was Death. He opens eyes
Slowly, to one long livid oozing plain
Closed down by the strange eyeless heavens. He lies;
And waits; and once in timeless sick surmise
Through the dead air heaves up an unknown hand,
Like a dry branch. No life is in that land,
Himself not lives, but is a thing that cries;
An unmeaning point upon the mud; a speck
Of moveless horror; an Immortal One
Cleansed of the world, sentient and dead; a fly
Fast-stuck in grey sweat on a corpse's neck.
I thought when love for you died, I should die.
It's dead. Alone, most strangely, I live on.
Lines Written in the Belief That the Ancient Roman Festival of the Dead
Was Called Ambarvalia
Swings the way still by hollow and hill,
And all the world's a song;
"She's far," it sings me, "but fair," it rings me,
"Quiet," it laughs, "and strong!"
Oh! spite of the miles and years between us,
Spite of your chosen part,
I do remember; and I go
With laughter in my heart.
So above the little folk that know not,
Out of the white hill-town,
High up I clamber; and I remember;
And watch the day go down.
Gold is my heart, and the world's golden,
And one peak tipped with light;
And the air lies still about the hill
With the first fear of night;
Till mystery down the soundless valley
Thunders, and dark is here;
And the wind blows, and the light goes,
And the night is full of fear,
And I know, one night, on some far height,
In the tongue I never knew,
I yet shall hear the tidings clear
From them that were friends of you.
They'll call the news from hill to hill,
Dark and uncomforted,
Earth and sky and the winds; and I
Shall know that you are dead.
I shall not hear your trentals,
Nor eat your arval bread;
For the kin of you will surely do
Their duty by the dead.
Their little dull greasy eyes will water;
They'll paw you, and gulp afresh.
They'll sniffle and weep, and their thoughts will creep
Like flies on the cold flesh.
They will put pence on your grey eyes,
Bind up your fallen chin,
And lay you straight, the fools that loved you
Because they were your kin.
They will praise all the bad about you,
And hush the good away,
And wonder how they'll do without you,
And then they'll go away.
But quieter than one sleeping,
And stranger than of old,
You will not stir for weeping,
You will not mind the cold;
But through the night the lips will laugh not,
The hands will be in place,
And at length the hair be lying still
About the quiet face.
With snuffle and sniff and handkerchief,
And dim and decorous mirth,
With ham and sherry, they'll meet to bury
The lordliest lass of earth.
The little dead hearts will tramp ungrieving
Behind lone-riding you,
The heart so high, the heart so living,
Heart that they never knew.
I shall not hear your trentals,
Nor eat your arval bread,
Nor with smug breath tell lies of death
To the unanswering dead.
With snuffle and sniff and handkerchief,
The folk who loved you not
Will bury you, and go wondering
Back home. And you will rot.
But laughing and half-way up to heaven,
With wind and hill and star,
I yet shall keep, before I sleep,
DEAD MEN'S LOVE
There was a damned successful Poet;
There was a Woman like the Sun.
And they were dead. They did not know it.
They did not know their time was done.
They did not know his hymns
Were silence; and her limbs,
That had served Love so well,
Dust, and a filthy smell.
And so one day, as ever of old,
Hands out, they hurried, knee to knee;
On fire to cling and kiss and hold
And, in the other's eyes, to see
Each his own tiny face,
And in that long embrace
Feel lip and breast grow warm
To breast and lip and arm.
So knee to knee they sped again,
And laugh to laugh they ran, I'm told,
Across the streets of Hell . . .
They suddenly felt the wind blow cold,
And knew, so closely pressed,
Chill air on lip and breast,
And, with a sick surprise,
The emptiness of eyes.
When I see you, who were so wise and cool,
Gazing with silly sickness on that fool
You've given your love to, your adoring hands
Touch his so intimately that each understands,
I know, most hidden things; and when I know
Your holiest dreams yield to the stupid bow
Of his red lips, and that the empty grace
Of those strong legs and arms, that rosy face,
Has beaten your heart to such a flame of love,
That you have given him every touch and move,
Wrinkle and secret of you, all your life,
— Oh! then I know I'm waiting, lover-wife,
For the great time when love is at a close,
And all its fruit's to watch the thickening nose
And sweaty neck and dulling face and eye,
That are yours, and you, most surely, till you die!
Day after day you'll sit with him and note
The greasier tie, the dingy wrinkling coat;
As prettiness turns to pomp, and strength to fat,
And love, love, love to habit!
And after that,
When all that's fine in man is at an end,
And you, that loved young life and clean, must tend
A foul sick fumbling dribbling body and old,
When his rare lips hang flabby and can't hold
Slobber, and you're enduring that worst thing,
Senility's queasy furtive love-making,
And searching those dear eyes for human meaning,
Propping the bald and helpless head, and cleaning
A scrap that life's flung by, and love's forgotten,
Then you'll be tired; and passion dead and rotten;
And he'll be dirty, dirty!
O lithe and free
And lightfoot, that the poor heart cries to see,
That's how I'll see your man and you!
— Oh, when THAT time comes, you'll be dirty too!